Every time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, commentators note how scary it is that we’ve almost become numb to them. But the past year has proven that we also risk becoming numb to another grave threat to America and the world: Donald Trump. His behavior in the past 36 hours has been so horrifically grotesque in so many different ways that it is easy to become emotionally immune to his hideous and bigoted comments, and the soullessness of his response to tragedy.
But we shouldn’t become immune: Trump’s response to the Orlando attack is a frightening window into how he might govern if elected. And his speech on Monday afternoon was the most terrifying of the campaign.
The fact that it was more of the same—demagoguery, fearmongering, outright lies—shouldn’t blind us to its disgusting content. Seemingly of the belief that simply saying “radical Islam” will win the war on terror (in this, at least, he doesn’t depart from the party he now leads), Trump mouthed the phrase many times Monday afternoon. But he also mouthed many other phrases, each one more disturbing than the next. He accused the president of consciously keeping law enforcement from doing its job; he scolded Hillary Clinton for saying Muslims were peaceful; he claimed he was right to call for a Muslim ban; he talked of huddling with the NRA to help prevent attacks. He talked of “these people”; he implied that almost all Afghans were extremists; he lied about the place of birth of the alleged shooter, who was American-born. “Can you imagine what they will do in large groups?” Trump asked, saying Obama had tried to bring “large groups” of Muslims from abroad. He claimed that immigrants would constitute a Trojan horse, implying that Muslims coming here were part of some secret plan.
He’s been saying this nonsense since Sunday morning. On Fox News, he hinted that Obama is either a sympathizer of Islamic terrorism, or some kind of sleeper cell. (Trump’s adviser, Roger Stone, wondered whether Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a "terrorist plant.") He’s been smearing refugees as dangerous terrorists, because in his mind, our country is overwhelmed with Syrians (we haven’t been taking very many in), our children are at risk of indoctrination by Muslims, and anyone who calls for any sort of understanding is a politically correct fool. Decency is weakness; authoritarianism is safety.
The lowest moment of the lowest speech in this very low campaign came near the end, when Trump, noting that Muslims must talk to authorities about their neighbors, said, “The Muslim community, so importantly, they have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. And they know it. And they have to do it forthwith.” It was all there: the “us” that doesn’t include Muslim-Americans, the not-so-vague menace behind the warning, the claim about what “they” know.
In the prepared version of the speech, Trump specifically mentioned prison time for people who refused to cooperate. But in the actual speech, he said this instead: "These people have to have consequences. Big consequences." This last-minute edit is the essence of Trumpism. Demagogues often leave things to the imaginations of both followers and victims. Therein lies both part of their appeal and their power to frighten. It’s been clear for a long time that Donald Trump must not become president. But Monday’s speech was another reminder that the prospect of his victory should scare us, motivate us, and keep in our minds that stopping him is both a practical and moral necessity.